After an uncommon school year with many pandemic-related challenges, the School of Education held its 2021 Commencement on April 29 in celebration of 595 graduating students.
Naslund Endowed Dean Mario Martinez offered opening remarks in the ceremony, which was held virtually to ensure the health and safety of participants and compliance with State and County public health regulations.
“Your choice to study with us and embark on your next chapter means we rely on you to actualize the principles of social justice we hold dear, which speak to equity and democracy, diversity, and being part of systemic change,” he said. “We rely on you to actualize principles of educational justice, which means working toward accessibility and inclusivity in education, and a commitment to self-awareness as we are on a continual path of growth ourselves, open to learning and new ideas.”
Martinez repeatedly returned to the concept of service, emphasizing students’ commitment to those that they will teach and counsel—what he and many in the School refer to as “finding the others.” He encouraged graduates to go forth and begin careers in education and mental health counseling geared toward justice and action.
A focus on equity and activism continued throughout the event, as student speaker Kevin Velez ’21 took to the screen to contextualize the adversity that students faced. Alluding to words spoken by Malcom X, Velez noted that every challenge is “a seed”—a reminder of the past that will influence the future. In addition to pursuing graduate education, students dealt with personal and professional stressors while also weathering the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are excerpts from his speech:
“We can all agree that the Class of 2021 will always remember the extraordinary circumstances that surrounded our last year-and-a-half of education. Our virtual ceremony is a reminder that we are still in the world-altering event that is COVID-19. It has been a time of profound change, as we have all lost our ‘usual’ ways of life. Some of us have lost employment, family and friends, and the peace of mind that comes from being certain of what’s next.
We have also experienced an amazing and agonizing movement for civil rights that exploded over the summer of 2020. That movement has sparked conversations about how we, as a country, must oppose structural and systemic racism.
Through all this adversity, many of us diligently—or maybe distractedly—went to class, wrote papers, read research articles, and struggled through internships. Most of all, and perhaps most importantly, in each of our ways—both big and small—we found a way to shine.
Malcom X called adversity, such as what we’ve experienced, the best teacher. He said that every defeat, every heartbreak, and every loss contain its own seed. These seeds are the blueprint of the future. They are vivid reminders of what we’ve been through, what we’ve lost, and what we can become. And they will eventually become our legacy.
The class of 2021 has a lot of seeds, because we know adversity so well.
Adversity over the course of our programs likely came in many forms. For myself, the adversity looked like heartbreaking losses of family members. In February of 2020 my grandmother passed away, followed by my cousin at the end of summer. In February of this year, my sister unexpectedly passed.
Along with feeling grief and the tremendous sense of loss, I am also constantly pulled to remember beautiful words they wrote to me years before their passing.
I carry these words with me as seeds. I open them and read them at times when the darkness seems unbearable. I plant them at times when I need them the most. I offer them so that you may be encouraged and inspired to recognize what seeds adversity has gifted you.
At the beginning of my senior year in undergrad, my grandmother wrote to me ‘I knew my special guy was going to be something great.’ I carry that seed as a reminder that greatness is not just from what I accomplish but also from what I dare to attempt.
Another seed I carry are words written by my sister who passed in February. In a letter given to me days before I left on an undergraduate study abroad trip, she wrote that “Great things are just around the corner.” I plant this seed so that it blooms perseverance whenever I feel like giving up.
I share these seeds given to me through loss, to remind us that although the world we are graduating into is uncertain and vastly different than the one that existed when we entered our programs—we are no less equipped, we are no less capable, and we are no less alone.
So, here we find ourselves, celebrating the culmination of long programs that tested us in every way, even as it sometimes felt like everything was crumbling around us.
I hope we carry our degree with pride, knowing that we are going into the world with seeds to build a future that is more just, equitable, and compassionate.
I challenge you, Class of 2021, to identify your seeds. What has adversity gifted you? What are those small words, learnings, concepts, revelations, and experiences that you are going to take with you into the world?
What are those things you will call upon to be difference makers and shape the future? What will you be planting?
We, the School of Education graduating Class of 2021, carry the seeds of the future. In both the large and small things you do, remember that you are making a difference. I am hopeful that our lights will shine bright during these incredible times. Once again, congratulations to the class of 2021. The world is waiting for us to bloom.”
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